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Heating up!
by Fred Pearce

Emissions from burning fossil fuel are the major contributing factor to climate change.

 

Polar regions are expected to suffer the most from climate change. Melting ice sheets will have an irreversible impact on sea levels.

Climate scientists in a recent UN report have warned that global warming could have catastrophic and irreversible consequences on the world's environment. Organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent are aiming to help people learn to adapt to the changes to come.

Lidia Rosa Paz was at a loss. She pointed despairingly out into the raging waters of the River Choluteca. To the spot where, until days before, she had lived in the colonia of Pedro Dias. The colonia, on the edge of Choluteca town in Honduras, had been washed away on the night of 28 October 1998, taking more than a hundred people to their deaths. It was one story on a night when 10,000 Hondurans died and more than 2 million were left dependent on aid from the Red Cross and Red Crescent and others.

The colonia had a fully functioning evacu-ation system, Lidia said. And the radio had broadcast hurricane warnings on the night that Hurricane Mitch came visiting. But nobody in Pedro Dias had believed the flood warnings. "Hurricanes never come here," she said to me. Or at least they never did.

For tens of millions of people across the world, Lidia's story should be prophetic. Nobody in Honduras, nobody in the Caribbean, had seen anything like Mitch. Not so much for the ferocity of its winds as the amount of water it dumped on this Central American country, creating huge floods and unleashing lethal mudslides.

And many meteorologists believe the most deadly Atlantic hurricane in 200 years was a consequence of global warming - a lethal confluence of unprecedented hurricane activity and warmer sea waters that encourage more water to evaporate.

Many more are convinced that, whatever its specific cause, Mitch was a sign of things to come. For the vulnerable inhabitants of flood-prone river valleys and coastal zones. For those living on hillsides at risk from landslips. For millions more who do not yet know that they are vulnerable in a new era of hyper-weather.

And, of course, for the agencies that will rush to their aid after a disaster.

Such fears were encouraged when, a year later, more record rains brought floods and landslides to the coast of northern Venezuela. Another disaster; another estimated 30,000 dead. "No one could have foreseen what happened here," Jose Rafael Gomez Pinto of the Venezuela Red Cross said later. "This was a vacation area where people came to spend the weekend. Even
millionaires had houses here."

And the sense that weird weather is now the norm came again a few months later, in February 2000, when storms in the Indian Ocean took their turn, flooding vast swathes of Mozambique. Searching the records afterwards, South African climatologist Mark Jury found that maximum daily rainfall across the region in the 1990s was 50 per cent higher than it had been early in the 20th century. Warmer ocean waters created more evaporation, so cyclones carried more moisture, he said.


Temperatures above or below average from 1850 to present.
Deforestation
  Sea-level risk
  Decreasing crop yields
  Water conflicts
  Greater disease risk
  Main fisheries affected
  Increase severity/frequency of tropical storms

International agreement

A report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agreed in January this year that recent years have seen a clear increase in "heavy and extreme precipitation events". And it warns of more to come as global warming gathers pace.
It won't just be storms and floods, either. Martin Parry of the University of East Anglia in England, a leading IPCC climatologist, forecast last November: "Dry areas will get drier and wet areas wetter." And a new study from his colleague Mike Hulme predicts that a swathe of already arid central and western Asia countries, from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, will see less rain and a much steeper than average increase in temperatures in the coming decades. The road to Samarkand, already hot and dusty, ain't seen nothing yet.

And as fast as the models are completed, their predictions seem to be coming true. Right on cue, as Hulme published his findings last autumn, drought began to engulf central Asia, where a deadly combination of no rains and intermittent civil war caused particular suffering in Afghanistan.

The tragedy, according to Hulme's analysis, is that poor nations, often dislocated by war and the collapse of government, are easily the most vulnerable to climate change. By plotting national wealth against predicted
temperature increases, he concludes that the three most vulnerable countries to climate change in the 21st century will be Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. None have been strangers to disaster during the closing decades of the 20th century. And disaster will beget disaster.

The UN predicts that the effects of climate change will fall disproportionately on the poor who have less capacity to cope with more severe and frequent weather events.

Coastal erosion, loss of land and property and dislocation of people are just some of the effects climate change will have on small island states.

The hand of man

The fact that our world is warming and its weather becoming more extreme is now almost universally accepted among scientists. Accepted, too, is the fact that the hand of man can be seen in at least some of the climatic change. The accumulation in the atmosphere of polluting gases, especially carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, is trapping solar energy at particular wavelengths close to the Earth's surface. This "greenhouse effect" has been known to physicists for more than a century, and last year it was measured directly for the first time in the changing spectrum of radiation escaping from the atmosphere into space.

Man is not the only player, of course. Most scientists now accept that some of the warming since the end of a cold spell in the mid-19th century can be attributed to solar cycles. But equally there is consensus that the faster rate of warming since around 1970 has no extra-terrestrial explanation. If anything, solar cycles should have been cooling the planet during that time. The most recent IPCC assessment, chaired by the former head of the British Meteorological Office Sir John Houghton, concluded that: "Most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
How fast the warming continues will depend on how quickly the world can bring emissions of greenhouse gases under control. Because carbon dioxide in particular stays in the air for at least a century, we will have to reduce emissions of the gas by more than half just to stabilize temperatures at existing levels, says the IPCC. Unless we do something drastic soon, the IPCC predicts a likely warming of up to 6 degrees Celsius in the coming century - ten times more than in the last hundred years. It warns that under that sort of warming influence, weather systems, which are largely driven by heat in the atmosphere, could change in many unpredictable ways.

In particular the hydrological cycle will become more intense, increasing evaporation rates. This will have two effects. Firstly, it will increase rainfall and the intensity of storms in coastal regions. But secondly it will cause the interiors of continents to dry out as moisture is sucked from soils, causing drought and desertification.

Effects on lives and livelihoods

In a second report on likely impacts of climate change, agreed in February, the IPCC concluded that the world could expect "a general reduction in crop yields in most tropical and subtropical regions...decreased water availability in many water-scarce regions, particularly in the subtropics...an increase in the number of people exposed to vector-borne disease such as malaria and water-borne diseases such as cholera... a widespread increase in the risk of flooding from both increased heavy precipitation events and sea-level rise."

Its more specific forecasts included: more monsoon floods in south-east Asia and more drought in central Asia, around the Mediterranean and in southern Africa and Australia. Parts of Africa and Asia face more drought years as well as more flood years as natural inter-annual variability in the weather, caused by phenomena such as El Niño, become more intense and extreme. Malaria and dengue fever will spread from the tropical lowlands, threatening highland and subtropical regions. Often their progress will be encouraged by the disruption caused by climatic disasters. Two years after Mitch, dengue fever was reaching epidemic proportions in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Many expect hydrological changes to be the dominant impact of climate change - far more significant for most people than the warming itself. With water already a critical resource in many countries, vulnerability to drought is growing in much of the world.

The risk of flooding will increase considerably in Europe with serious repercussions for urban areas, industry, tourism, agriculture and natural habitats.

"Climate change is here and it is bound to get worse."

The big picture on CO2

Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for over 80 per cent of global warming pollution in 1990, 97 per cent of the CO2 emitted by western industrialized countries came from burning coal, oil and gas for energy. Around 25 per cent of the world's population living in industrialized nations consume almost 80 per cent of the world's energy. It's a leading reason why developing nations look to the industrialized world to take the first decisive steps in cutting CO2. There's now over 30 per cent more CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere than before the Industrial Revolution. (An increase from 280 to around 370 parts per million by volume (ppmv) today.)

Source: World Wide Fund for Nature

The IPCC reckons that the number of people living in countries that meet its definition of being water-stressed will triple to 5 billion by the year 2025.
But the report finds that "the most widespread direct risk to human settlements from climate change is flooding and landslides, driven by projected increases in rainfall intensity and, in coastal areas, sea-level rise." Many people know that, with sea levels likely to rise by half a metre in the coming century, heavily populated areas of low-lying land, such as southern Bangladesh, the Nile delta, parts of eastern China and many atoll islands of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans face a bleak future. So too do the long stretches of low-lying coasts in western Africa from Senegal to Angola, in South America from Venezuela to Recife in Brazil, almost the entire eastern US seaboard and much of the coastlines of Indonesia and Pakistan.

Coastal regions are already home to half of the world's population, and have populations growing at twice the global average. Almost by the hour, the world is putting itself at greater risk from the rising tides.

Many millions will simply be flooded from their homes. But many more will hang on until an inevitable high tide or storm surge invades. The average annual number of people whose houses are flooded by storm surges along coastlines is expected to increase from a few million each year to between 75 and 200 million by the year 2080, estimates the IPCC.

Such a scale of flooding will damage national economies. "Potential damages to infrastructure in coastal areas from sea-level rise have been projected to be tens of billions of dollars for individual countries, for example Egypt, Poland and Viet Nam," says the IPCC study.

And the report warns that inland areas could suffer, too. They include river valleys subjected to more intense rainfall or stronger spring meltwaters, as well as many low-lying urban areas, especially squatter settlements and shanty towns with poor drainage. "Urban flooding could be a problem anywhere that storm drains, water supply and waste management systems have inadequate capacity. In such areas, squatter settlements...are highly vulnerable."

The IPCC carries an especially stark warning for aid and emergency services when it warns that insurance companies will increasingly withdraw from providing cover in high-risk areas. Both governments and aid agencies will be called on to fill the gap.

 

 

Adaptation

The message of these latest IPCC reports is clear, says Madeleen Helmer, a consultant on climate change with the Netherlands Red Cross. "Climate change is already here, and it is bound to get worse, however much is done internationally to try and halt it." While fighting it, the world has no choice but to also find ways of living with it.

"Up until now, adaptation has been a dirty word among both researchers and negotiators. To accept the need for adaptation has been seen as somehow condoning climate change," says Helmer. This, she believes, has happened partly because the agenda of climate change "has often been driven by environmental groups, whose number-one objective is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases".

Non-governmental organizations specializing in development issues, with their more pragmatic agendas, "have not so far become involved". This even though developing countries such as Bangladesh and the small island states of the Pacific and Caribbean have been asking for more attention to be given to the issue of adaptation, she says. But until recently their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. "Very little has been done. But things are changing."

One sign of change occurred at the climate negotiations held in The Hague last November. Though mostly remembered for their failure to reach an agreement on the Kyoto Protocol to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, the talks did have a positive side, says Helmer. For the first time there was concrete discussion about setting up an adaptation fund to help countries cope with the impacts of climate change. One suggestion was that the fund would need 1 billion US dollars a year to start its work.

Helmer is currently working on plans to establish a centre inside the Movement to focus on how climate change will impact on real communities, particularly through the expected greater number of natural disasters. It will also look at how National Societies need to adapt in order to cope. If all goes well, the centre could be at work in The Hague by early 2002.
"We want the centre to become a link between climate science and our own investigations into vulnerability to climate disasters and adaptation," she says. The IPCC scientists know about how the natural world will respond to changing climate, but much less about how this will translate into the experiences of real people. The Red Cross has the experience both on the ground and in framing disaster mitigation strategies, that can help to fill that gap. "We can deliver the human factor," says Helmer.

Many within the Red Cross and Red Crescent family still wonder whether the sometimes abstruse world of climate change is really relevant to their work. After all, they already deal with the human tragedies caused by climatic disasters. In 1999, nearly three-quarters of the losses attributed to natural disasters arose from storms, floods and drought. And some fear that switching priorities to cope with theoretical climatic disasters in the future could prevent them from concentrating on real disasters today. Why plan for climate change in sub-Saharan Africa when crises such as AIDS impinge on so many lives today?

Helmer believes that, while global climate change may appear gradual when climatologists talk of rises in average temperatures over many decades, the change will often manifest itself in sudden climatic shifts and extreme weather events, which do cause real day-to-day disasters. We won't know for sure which climatic disasters should be laid at the door of global warming, but the reality will be that many would not otherwise have happened. "The speed and impact of climatic disasters will increase. I don't think that we can say that it will be business as usual. If we do we will not be able to cope."

 

Fast facts

The world has warmed by 0.5°C
over the past century and an average 2°C warming is predicted by 2100.

30 new infectious diseases have emerged in the past 20 years.

Scientific consensus agrees that air pollution from human activities is partly responsible for global warming.

Global warming will expose millions of people to new health risks.

Global sea level has risen between 10 and 25 centimetres in the last 100 years and will rise faster still in the coming decades.

By the year 2050, up to 1 million additional deaths from malaria may be occurring annually as a result of climate change.

Source: World Wide Fund for Nature

Riccardo Conti, the ICRC's specialist on complex emergencies, has worked extensively in Iraq over the past decade fixing water supply equipment to keep down the incidence of waterborne disease and hunger. Much of the equipment fell into disrepair quite soon after the Gulf war for want of spare parts. But that's not the whole story. Often water intake equipment needs rebuilding because water levels in the rivers are low. "Water treatment plants on the River Tigris have been sucking mud because drought has reduced the water levels," he says. And that looks like a result of climate change. "When you see the pattern of the last three or four years, you realize something is happening," he says.

"In the field, people are seeing climate change daily in the availability of water for drinking and for their fields," says Conti. "For us in the water sector, climate change is important. If we don't start to think about it now, then who will?"

Many governments, including those in the developing world, are devising strategies for coping with climate change - whether it is drawing up evacuation plans for low-lying Pacific islands or planning for the next Hurricane Mitch. "The Red Cross and Red Crescent has not so far become involved in these policy developments within governments," says Helmer. "But we should be trying to link up." Helping National Societies do that will, she hopes, be a major task for the new centre.

 

 

Climate change will not in most cases alter radically the kind of climatic disasters that vulnerable communities face. But it will often change the frequency and intensity of those events. Hurricanes are not new to the Caribbean, for instance, but one with the sheer volume of rainfall that Mitch dumped on Honduras was. If Lidia Rosa Paz and her neighbours in Choluteca had been more aware that climate change meant their city was no longer immune from hurricanes, they would have heeded the radio alert and many would have survived as the river burst through their colonia.

As climate change pushes the world towards more extreme weather, more and more people will be exposed to not one, but a recurrence of major disasters during their lives. "There is a risk of more and more people being marginalized through persistent disasters," says Eva von Oelreich from the Federation's disaster preparedness and response department.

Perhaps the Movement's most vital task, she says, is to take hold of the mass of scientific projections now emerging - often with quite detailed predictions of how local climate will change - and work out what it all means at the local level, for real communities. "We can work out the risks and help them to manage that risk. Awareness is the poor person's insurance."

Fred Pearce
Fred Pearce is environment consultant at New Scientist magazine.



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